Over the last 12 months, Hilary Pilkington has been conducting (overt) ethnographic research with a number of divisions of the English Defence League under the auspices of the MYPLACE project. As part of this research she attended a national demonstration in Newcastle on 25 May organised by the EDL well before the brutal killing of serving soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London just a few days earlier (22nd May). She describes here the experience of being at that demonstration at what may prove to be a significant moment in the movement’s short history.
Readers should bear in mind that the researcher’s work is ongoing and this blog does not seek to either summarize her findings or reflect her own political position. It attempts simply to describe the day’s events from the perspective of being a non-EDL member on the ‘inside’ of an EDL march.
When one of the leaders of the EDL, a Luton lad, declares that the North East is the ‘heart and soul of the country’, the firmament seems strangely insecure. On a rare hot bank holiday Saturday, indeed the ground was shifting in Newcastle’s city centre to the marching feet of around two thousand people. The songs and chants that formed the soundtrack to the march were familiar: ‘Keep St George in my heart, keep me English…’, ‘English till I die, I’m English till I die’ as well as, when counter demonstrators were in touching distance, some of the more aggressive taunts that ‘You’re not English any more’ and ‘Allah, Allah, who the f… is Allah?’. But the surface similarities belie some real differences between this demonstration and the ten or so national and regional demonstrations I have attended over the year.
The demonstrators were not only more numerous – over the last few months national demonstrations have attracted a few hundred not a few thousand while many regional demonstrations have seen less than a hundred turn out – but also more diverse. The majority were local people, not escorted into the city by the police in coaches from the south, not logo-ed up in black hoodies and other EDL paraphernalia; some carried, or draped themselves in, makeshift EDL flags with ‘EDL’ written in pen on regular St George’s flags. They were also younger than at many demonstrations; two unaccompanied boys no more than 10 or 11 years old stood close to the makeshift stage (a bench in a pedestrian part of a central shopping area) listening attentively to the speeches. There was also a high presence of serving or ex-service personnel.
There was too a very different dynamic to this demonstration. Previous events have hit their emotional peak often en route or at muster points, as old friends meet and rebond, or during clashes with police or counterdemonstrators as adrenalin runs high. Speeches, when they have come, have been sometimes barely audible, largely predictable and frequently disrupted by demonstrators peeling off to join skirmishes with police or counter demonstrators. Not this time. This time the march was heading somewhere. This was confirmed by Tommy Robinson in the first of the afternoon’s speeches when he admitted that the movement had ‘swayed from our course over the last four years’, but that the events of the week had ‘brought it back together’. Today, it seemed, the EDL was heading home.
The EDL emerged in 2009 in response to street protests by the Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun to British troop homecoming celebrations in Luton. The murder of Lee Rigby as he walked through the streets of London – not only its fact but also its manner (see: http://news.sky.com/story/1094380/woolwich-soldier-dead-after-terror-attack) – had, Tommy Robinson said, brought the movement back to its roots in resisting expressions of disrespect for British service personnel and suggestions that they were a ‘legitimate target’ of violence. In the course of his speech a serving member of the armed forces climbed onto the roof of the Landrover carrying the speaker system just behind the ‘stage’ and held aloft first a Union Jack flag with ‘Support Our Toops’ and then a St George’s flag with ‘R.I.P Lee Rigby’ printed on it to much applause and chants of ‘hero, hero’.
Kevin Carroll followed up in his speech with some concrete policy suggestions, calling on the government to make it a criminal offence to insult or assault British forces service personnel. The government, indeed, came in for significant criticism; Tommy Robinson questioned how the events of the week had led David Cameron to the conclusion that ‘Muslims are the victims of terrorism’ and ended his speech by spelling out the message to the Prime Minister that when this many people come out on the street, it constitutes a ‘cry for help’ to the government to ‘sort out this mess, because we are living it’.
Of course the EDL is a highly diverse movement and includes people from many different political backgrounds and with differing agendas. This became evident when, after a speech in which Tommy Robinson was at pains to distance the movement from labels of extremism and racism, the microphone was taken by a third person on stage (who was not introduced and was not visible from my position) whose apparent policy advice to the government was to ‘send the black c…. home’. The microphone was passed back swiftly to the EDL leader who re-emphasised the need to differentiate between Islam – which he declared to be ‘an ideology’ and ‘Muslims’ (who are, he said, ‘the first victims of Islam’). It was, he went on, ‘honourable’ to oppose Sharia law and ‘Muslim grooming gangs’ but not to shout abuse at individual Muslims.
A further distinctive element to the demonstration in Newcastle was the apparent lack of desire for aggro with police or counterdemonstrators that is so often a bone of internal contention in the movement. This may have been in response to the leaders’ calls to make sure that the recent rise in popularity of the movement (the national page had quadrupled its number of ‘likes’ to over 100,000 in the two days after the murder of Lee Rigby while local divisions reported membership tripling in the same time) by engaging in needless petty violence that would be widely reported in the media. But those calls are routine at every demonstration, as are the thanks extended to the police; Northumbria police did indeed handle both the EDL and the ‘Newcastle Unites’ counter-demonstration nearby, exceptionally well and with relatively few numbers. My own observation, however, suggests that this loss of appetite for a fight came from below. The resolve of the crowd was tested in particular when, during a minute’s silence held in memory of Lee Rigby, the chants from the adjacent counter-demonstration of ‘Nazi scum off our streets’ could be heard clearly. There was no retaliation, during or after the silence. Later, as the group with whom I had travelled returned to the coach, police lines were thin affording ample opportunity to break through and cause trouble. Nobody did. Indeed at one point, seeing some lads confronting police, one of the young members of the group shouted over to them to ‘leave it’. Media reports following the demonstration reported 24 arrests (not distinguishing from which demonstration they came or the number of arrests that were violence-related) and some minor skirmishes with police.
Finally, and although it may well get forgotten in subsequent accounts which will be dominated by the connection of this demonstration to the death of Lee Rigby, the final speech given at the demonstration was by the 19 year old leader of the LGBT division of the EDL. To much applause, he gave an eloquent speech about the importance of the division, which had existed for three years, in challenging representations of the movement as ‘homophobic fascists’ and the failure of what he called the ‘far left’ to be consistent with their claim to oppose homophobia wherever they find it.
The EDL has called a demonstration in London to march on Downing Street on Monday 27th May.